How Moderates can Mediate U.S.-China Tensions

The US-China relationship has become increasingly fraught with tensions, misunderstandings, and vitriol exhibited by both sides. Some have attributed the decline in camaraderie and deepening mutual suspicion to the vindictive strategies of the Trump administration, and its insistence on empty grand-standing at the expense of facilitating genuine dialogue and communication between the two prominent powers.

This view, however, underestimates the extent to which the hardening of stances – both in China and the United States – is a by-product of domestic politics and changing public sentiment. On one hand, the political establishment in the United States has pivoted considerably from the Obama-era of constructive engagement, opting instead for a growing bipartisan consensus that China presents an existential threat to the United States. While the American public is by no means as staunch in their position on China as their representatives in Congress, the view that “China is America’s biggest economic competitor and […] we need policies that invest in our own businesses and protect American workers from unfair trade practices” ranked amongst the top five priorities in a recent Center for American Progress survey.

On the other hand, a brewing, impetuous strain of hyper-nationalism has taken central stage in Chinese politics. Certain segments of Chinese citizens, diplomats, and politicians alike increasingly view America as a power in decline, and that its criticisms of China are mere symptoms of fundamental American insecurities and a legitimizing narrative to fill the vacuum left by the denouement of the War on Terror. America is portrayed as a country that is structurally wired to oppose the rise of China; criticisms of China, in turn, are framed as threats to the country that must be vanquished and eliminated from public and international discourse.

Suffice to say, tensions are running high between the two powers. It is at this time that moderates – individuals who believe in both China’s rise and the continued success of America and who can straddle contemporary cultural and political divides – must step up. It is easy to get caught up in the quagmire of nomenclature, such as who counts as a moderate or who counts as a nationalist due to the rapidly shifting landscape of the US-China debate. “Hawks” of yesterday have become the “doves” of today, whilst pragmatists who have advocated engagement for long are now viewed as over-idealists. Nonetheless, moderates are individuals who adhere to the following commitments and beliefs, despite some variations and disagreements:

  1. Both China and the United States have the right to pursue the interests of their own citizens. In the process of doing so, they should be encouraged to compete benignly against one another;
  2. Both the Chinese and American regimes are legitimate and whose right to rule should be respected, not flagrantly or tacitly undermined – this extends to the mode and nature of critiques levied at the other party;
  3. Each regime is entitled to upholding their own core values within their separate jurisdictions, with minimal external interference;
  4. Conversations with well-defined objectives and terms of reference are by far preferable to antagonistic mudslinging and physical and diplomatic combat;
  5. Where such conversations are not possible, the remedial approach should be to identify narrows areas over which consensus can be discovered – giving up on dialogue is not a viable solution.

I take these tenets to be at the core of moderate advocacy on US-China relations. Moderates of this nature exist across academia, the think-tank space, and in diplomatic circles – both current and retired. At times when relations are as frayed as these, what, then, could they do?

First, moderates from both sides of the Pacific must confidently articulate a narrative on how engagement, dialogue, and compromise, as opposed to war (total or partial), could yield productive results both for China’s reform and America’s reckoning with the ascent of a serious economic competitor. This narrative should capture how the US and China interact with other actors with a stake in the relationship, such as smaller and medium-sized states who often find themselves compelled to take sides in this escalating conflict. More substantially, advocates must respond to the roster of criticisms and cynical challenges from those who posit that engagement does not work – some of them valid, others less so and more politico-ideologically tainted – in order to assuage the worries of disillusioned individuals in the West, who have come to view China’s political modernisation as precipitating an increasingly authoritarian and predatory regime. They must also grapple with the anxieties of those within China, who opine that the West is and has been instigating an alleged Colour Revolution against the country. This may be a misconception, but moderates – as of today – are not offering any convincing rebuke to these narratives, who speak well to the angst of those who are startled by the rapid pace at which China-West relations have been unravelling.

Here, it is imperative that moderates look past blanket statements about China’s rise today, and delve into the undercurrents – the rich sociocultural diversity and the openness to post-materialist, progressive ideals amongst China’s burgeoning middle class. For example, Cheng Li’s recent book, Middle-class Shanghai: Reshaping US-China engagement, points to the fact that the plural, heterogeneous, and open-minded civil society in large, cosmopolitan Chinese cities have and can continue to serve as vital bridges between America and China. To spurn millennials and well-educated youth – to portray them as un-thinking, brainwashed cogs in a machine – reveals not only a deeply misinformed Orientalist mindset, but also a counterproductive outlook to identifying common ground between future generations in China and the United States. There is more that unites us than separates us.

Second, a spectre in US-China relations looms over the prospects of compartmentalisation – i.e. for both states to set aside their respective and structural differences, to work together on issues where there is no feasible solution other than if they work together. There are plenty of existential challenges that fit this description – climate change, public health crises, the advent of terrorism and security threats around the world. Secretary Antony Blinken promised, in his first official address on China, “the United States will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be and adversarial when it must be.” – in practice, such compartmentalisation is neither clearly actionable, nor an approach that the Chinese may be particularly keen to reciprocate.

Moderates across fields – ranging from environmental policy, sociocultural and civil society exchanges, education, technology, finance and investment – should speak out over the viability and necessity of China and the United States pursuing common ground in these spheres. There must be a clear recognition amongst the public of the importance for such alliances to be forged – they are not optional, but necessary, and even indispensable. China is the largest producer of affordable, cheap solar energy – a critical step in the world’s transitioning towards renewable energy in the medium-term. The United States remains amongst the most popular destinations for higher education amongst Chinese students, who cherish the country – though perhaps with newly arisen reservations – for its rich, established academic traditions. Individuals who seek to broker better relations should point to, advocate, and seek to preserve these mutually advantageous ties – whether it be lobbying, funding, or speaking out on their behalf.

Third, moderates should step up to becoming – or, if they already are, leading, as – practitioners of Track-II diplomacy. The bluster and bravado of openly aired conversations, the hostility of wolf-warrior Chinese diplomats and “human rights-promoting” American senators reflect the fact that it is increasingly difficult for frank, open and productive conversations to be arranged and held between Chinese and American leaders. This has to do, at least in a large part, with internal political intrigue and incentives, which render appearing “weak” to “the other side” neither electorally nor politically palatable.

Setting aside the question of responsibility, this is also where and why moderates ought to act. From convening closed-room dialogues to discussions in open fora– even spaces for unfettered collaborative academic research and writing, which are increasingly under the threat of hostile visa wars and censorship – there is much that can be done to keep the flame of goodwill alive. Conferences and seminars where diplomats from both sides can interact with academics and civilians from the other side in a candid, open-ended manner, could provide the much-needed sense-check on the impressions and perceptions held by statespersons and political leaders in China and America alike.

Clarifying real baselines and the genuinely unmovable interests of “the other” is vital to prevent the numerous close brush-ins during the US and USSR experienced during the Cold War. China and the United States are neither in a cold nor hot war today – but it takes all hands on deck to prevent us from accidentally sleepwalking into one.